Best Horror Games #6 – Layers of Fear

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★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Psychological Horror
Platform: PC, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Aspyr / Bloober Team
Published: 2016

Summary – Layers of Fear focuses on a painter who is determined to finish his Magnum Opus, no matter what. The painter walks throughout his enormous, deserted house collecting strange “ingredients” to add to his masterpiece, all the while tormented by the horrors within his own paintings.

Overall Thoughts
Behold, the devil’s art project! If you’ve always wanted to see the worst of a creative mind’s obsessive nature, this is the best way to do it without actually going insane.
I love classical art – impressionism, gothic art, surreal art – whatever its nature, I love beautiful art, and I’m sorry if I accidentally jump-scared anyone with the title image! She’s beautiful too, in her… um, decomposing, meaty, salmonella sort of way. This is a project focused on the dark, cruel side of classical art.

Developed by an indie team from Poland, every inch of Layers of Fear is hellish yet impossible to look away from simultaneously. It’s too appealing to the eye, and the dark secrets that you can find (or cause yourself) are too appealing to the mind. There’s so much to explore, and it seems like every corner hides some fresh derangement flourishing in the dark, or in bright, Argento-esque bursts of light, paint and blood. The hauntings and delusions are so realistic, too, that it could be a movie.

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Layers of Fear is a potent, actually scary experience that makes use of psychedelic horror effects and the unexpected to infiltrate your waking nightmares. It’s not like other horror “games”, in that there are no real enemies or game mechanics, it’s just you and your eyes trapped in the head of a mad painter who’s possibly a murderer, or even a serial killer. One of the most creative parts I found, was watching the “Magnum Opus” unfold as he collects the parts to make it (which are body parts, by the by). Depending on the route you take morally during the course of exploring the mansion, the Magnum Opus could appear grotesque, as it does above, or beautiful. It can even appear neither, but ordinary and with a scathing expression on the woman’s face.

While it has a more vibrant, grotesque character than a lot of horror games I’ve seen before, it gets the psychological horror the medium is known for down to a T. Silent Hill 2 is known for its somber depiction of depression, and I think this one is comparable to like, the schizophrenia and ADHD spectrum.
I found some of the weirder imagery to be familiar, as intrusive thoughts (common with ADHD, anxiety and OCD, among other conditions) tend to have that horrible sort of flavour to them. I wouldn’t call it a relatable game, per se, like Silent Hill – unless of course, you prefer to paint with human blood! – but the comparison to mental illness is interesting to consider.

Would It Make a Good Novel?
Yes. Layers of Fear seems to take heavy inspiration from classics, not solely paintings, but novels as well, notably The Picture of Dorian Gray, where a man’s self-portrait becomes grotesque and horrifying as he becomes a more horrible person.

Final Rubric
Story and Characters – 4.5
Art and Design – 5
Gameplay and Entertainment Factor – 4.5
Fear Factor – 5
Music and Sound – 4
General Score – 4.5 out of 5

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Best Horror Games #7 – Luigi’s Mansion

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★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Horror / Adventure
Platform: Gamecube, Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Published: 2001 / 2018 (Re-Release)

Summary Luigi, of Super Mario Bros. fame, receives a mysterious letter telling him that he’s won a mansion. In reality, the mansion is not the beautiful one depicted in the letter, but a haunted, dilapidated mansion in the remote woods. According to a scientist who lives nearby, the mansion appeared there on its own several days ago, and the ghosts who inhabit it have kidnapped Luigi’s brother, Mario.

Overall Thoughts
Luigi’s Mansion is a perfect example of horror that could appeal to anyone. It’s not gory, so it’s alright for the kids, but is entertaining and offers enough challenge for adults as well. This game is nearly twenty years old, believe it or not, but it’s aged astoundingly well. The unusual, creative blend of cartoonish characters and elaborate, almost Victorian settings is still pleasing to the eye. I’ve played Luigi’s Mansion about a hundred times and never had any technical problems or glitches, either.

The aesthetic and gameplay reminds me an awful lot of a softer, more colourful version of the first Resident Evil, which also takes place in a massive, sprawling mansion full of hidden rooms and traps. There are no weapons at your disposal, though. It’s not like they’d work on a ghost anyhow, so it’s just Luigi and his Ghostbusters-style vacuum cleaner.

The story is kind of basic, like a lot of Super Mario Bros. games, but the fun comes from exploration and defeating ghosts rather than plot. One thing I love in particular is the bosses. Every now and then Luigi will encounter the ghost of a human, who are much tougher and smarter than the Boos and smaller, blobby ghosts that show up around the mansion. These ghosts have to be tricked somehow into revealing their weak point so they can be captured. Usually, it’s something that has to do with their personality, which you’re left to figure out for yourself through clues in the ghost’s room, as well as notes and even on occasion, a conversation with the ghost.

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As a kid, I always loved Big Boo’s Haunt on Super Mario 64 and thought it was the creepiest thing, so of course it’s great to have a full-length game based on that design. I would also consider the sequel, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon to be pretty great, but I don’t have enough experience with the sequel to make a separate post about it. Both are extremely fun games with a light survival horror feel to them.

Would It Make a Good Novel?
I don’t think so, actually. Some horror games would, but there’s not enough linear plot to work with here. I feel like Luigi’s Mansion would get pretty repetitive if you tried to translate it into a book. A graphic novel might be serviceable.

Final Rubric
Story and Characters – 4
Art and Design – 5
Gameplay and Entertainment Factor – 4.5
Fear Factor – 3.5
Music and Sound – 4
General Score – 4.5 out of 5

Haunt Me to Sleep Preview!

“Float far out into the Pacific. Follow its surface in any direction you want, whenever the anxiety gets to be overwhelming, whenever there is no treatment left for the black clot that forms a body-wide cancer. Adrift in the crystalline sea, you will come upon a cavern, whether you intend to or not.”

One of the prose pieces from the upcoming horror-dark fantasy collection Haunt Me to Sleep, “Grotto Siren”, was published in Radium Piano Band. You can read it for free at the link below. Haunt Me to Sleep is a mix of horror “atmospheres”, ranging from dark humor, to fairytale, to existential horror, to grotesque. It was difficult to place a specific sub-genre to its name.
I had originally intended for this book to come out around October 7th, but due to the massive rush on horror during that time, I’ve decided to move it closer to Halloween itself, when, believe it or not, fewer horror books are published. The final date for all versions, at least, will be between October 21st and November 9th, the ePub version coming out slightly later than the paperback and Kindle ones.

Radium Piano Band – Issue #17

News on Haunt Me to Sleep

Haunt Me to Sleep is my debut fiction project. I’ve talked about it a little bit, but before I was positive about what the project was going to be like. It hasn’t quite strayed entirely away from poetry, as there are multiple prose pieces, but I thought a mix of styles would be perfect for what I was trying to convey. There are 52 pieces total, most of which are stories or prose. I think about 10-12 of them count strictly as poems.

Haunt Me to Sleep is an unorthodox book of “ghost stories”. Some are ghosts in the traditional sense, and some are more like mythological monsters. On the other hand, some are more metaphorical “ghosts” – something that haunts a character that isn’t really a tangible person or thing. I drew heavily from Japanese and Cherokee mythology for the design and nature of some of the ghosts, as well as themes of existential horror and common phobias.

This book, this insane book, which began as a pet project, has absolutely consumed the majority of my spare time. (Have patience with me! This book might have actually become some kind of evil entity by this point.) What was initially a poetry book of roughly ninety pages is now a fully fleshed-out book of short stories that I estimate will top out at 43k words. I’ll probably be able to post some illustrations from it soon, as I’ve set it to be published between late September and mid-October.

As of today, I still have about eight stories to clean up. Seems like a lot, but none of them are over eighteen pages. Everything else is finished, save for the cover and some touch-up on the interior artwork, which hopefully, you’ll love. The ghost portraits turned out very creepy and quirky. I am not as practiced a horror artist as say, Junji Ito or Stephen Gammell, but for a twenty-something novice, the illustrations at least look professional and smooth. Anyway, it’s something to look forward to, and I really can’t wait to start sharing some excerpts from it! 🙂

Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 2)

Sorry for the delay between this and Part One, which began the countdown of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark I find to be the most unnerving, gruesome and haunting of them all, in light of the upcoming film adaptation. Please read Part One first if you haven’t already, and take into context that these are plucked from the original, beloved Schwartz and Gammell books, not any of the alternate reprints. Gammell’s illustrations (and a decent dose of nostalgia) have a massive effect on the creep factor that is absent from the Helquist-illustrated version.

5. Oh, Susanna! from Book 2
The story itself is disconcerting enough, being about a serial killer who sneaks into a student’s dorm and beheads her roommate while she’s trying to sleep, but the illustration for this is so abstract and bleak and “WTF” that it unintentionally makes it far more nightmarish. It depicts, at least in my personal interpretation, the killer as a skeletal beast severing the head of Susannah, the roommate, which carries the protagonist off into the abyss of horrific realization.
While it does it through grotesque methods, “Oh, Susanna!” is a great point to bring up when discussing cerebral depth in children’s books. This drawing made my imagination go insane and back around again, trying to determine what it meant.

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4. Harold from Book 3
“Harold” is the darling of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and features on most of the new film’s promotional art. Scarecrows are not fundamentally scary. They are big, stuffed dolls with silly faces and button eyes. But that unchanging expression would be disturbing if say, you abused a scarecrow for kicks and it learned how to move like a person just to spite you. And it only gets worse. I won’t spoil this one because the ending is brutal. Most of the Scary Stories library, as far as the actual plots go, would not be upsetting to an adult, but I think this is one of the exceptions. Continue reading “Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 2)”

Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 1)

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A few days ago, I wrote some meandering thoughts on the upcoming Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film adaptation, which I’m simultaneously uneasy and excited about, so I thought for the fun of it, I’d do a countdown of my favourites from the classic children’s trilogy. This book series, as I’ve noted, is vital in forming my love of the horror genre. It’s about as important to me as one of my own creations.

These are loosely rated from tamest to scariest. What I found unnerving could easily not be to somebody else, however. I personally find ones with human, or once-human, perpetrators to be the most memorable, rather than the more supernatural shorts. Each of the three books has its own signature “feel” as well, which affected my ratings. Whereas the second book is about human evils and the third about paranormal, cosmic horrors, the first book is more lighthearted campfire horror and hence, fewer stories from it made this list, though I would call it equally as enjoyable as its sequels.

10. Such Things Happen from Book 3
The fear of witchcraft is heavily ingrained in American folklore. In my speculation, it’s a combination of the young country’s large expanses of isolation, which can lead to seeing things that aren’t easily explained, and America’s staunch religious background. Its root is a fear of becoming cursed or damned, and that fear is portrayed with eerie accuracy in this story about a man who accidentally earns the hate of a supposed witch by running over her cat. “Such Things Happen” doesn’t get mentioned enough, as it’s more on the psychological edge and it’s possible there’s nothing paranormal in this story.

9. The Window from Book 2
A woman wakes up late in the night to find a golden-eyed corpse staring in her window. She makes the mistake of running and it attacks her. The woman and her brothers discover that it’s a vampire ravaging fresh crypts in the graveyard and bleeding the living who are unlucky enough to be in its path. What makes this story haunting is the sheer anxiety of looking out the window at night. What would you do if you saw something that wasn’t exactly human anymore?

8. One Sunday Morning from Book 2
“One Sunday Morning” is an extremely short story about a woman who arrives at her church early to find she has intruded on a sermon for the dead, but all you need to care about is this illustration, and where it will show itself in your nightmares tonight.

Related image Continue reading “Top 10 Scariest Stories to Tell in the Dark (Pt. 1)”

Thoughts on the Scary Stories Movie

The new Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film has broken my personal record for being the third book-to-film adaptation I’ve ever actually been hyped for. I mean, this means as much to me as a film adaptation of my own books would. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, if you’re not familiar, are a trilogy of books by folklorist Alvin Schwartz and artist Stephen Gammell. Its legacy is being one of the most banned and challenged children’s series in recent history, compiling folklore, ghost stories and urban legends and retelling them in a nightmarish and surreal tone.

Scary Stories has been challenged by a number of American and international school boards for its raw and unrelenting depictions of cannibalism, black magic, violence, death and the undead. The Grimms could get away with it but Schwartz and Gammell couldn’t, the reason being that there’s something these books have that the Grimms didn’t… and that’s the signature artwork.

The disturbing artwork is the primary reason it was banned. Gammell’s work is stunningly beautiful from a technical perspective, but often featured grotesque, deformed humanoid monsters and scenes of surreal horror that were difficult to describe even as an adult. Obviously, they gave a number of children unlikely and specific phobias, but that hardly stopped them from loving the series.
There exists an alternate version with more subdued artwork by Brett Helquist that is largely, and unfairly, disliked by fans. Brett Helquist is a great artist, but his style is not the most suited to this collection, in my opinion. I feel the artist caught an unwarranted amount of hell for his work on the rerelease, seeing as Helquist was just doing his job, and his illustrations were good. They just weren’t Gammell’s.

Stephen Gammell’s notorious illustrations are one of the driving forces behind my desire to create. I had and have never seen anything vaguely akin to his style. It can’t be replicated, by anyone who retains their sanity, at least. Something interesting is that Gammell is quoted as being bemused that so many children found the illustrations scary, believing they were far too unrealistic to creep anyone out. About that…

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When I heard that the plot of the upcoming film, which comes out in August, would involve teenagers in a haunted house, I was devastated… I thought, oh God, they’ve turned my beloved into another cheese-laden summer slasher movie… but I was relieved quite a lot when I saw who the directors were and the monsters’ visual appeal in the trailers. I was severely anxious for a minute there. My reaction was about to become a horror story of its own, but I’m less doubtful now. Continue reading “Thoughts on the Scary Stories Movie”

Book Review – Accents of Horror by Chris Snider

★★★★ 4 Stars

Full Title: Accents of Horror: Four Flavors of Death
Genre: Horror / Paranormal
Publication Date: September 15th, 2013
Publisher: Independent

“Who else knows you better than yourself? You know all of your secrets.”

Accents of Horror is a four-act theatre of dark deeds, revenge and restless phantoms. It’s a load of creepy, classic urban-legend fueled fun. I like that it can be cut into different varieties of horror, from a ghost story to occult horror to a very real horror that comes completely from human beings, nothing paranormal involved.

These are all very brief stories, so it’s difficult to go in-depth about them without outright spoiling the plots, but here is a quick rundown of my thoughts on each. I recommend this collection if you’re looking for something short, sweet and with a conservative but lasting dose of disturbing imagery.

“A Stranger in the Rain” – ★★★★

This I believe was my favourite, along with “The Comeback”. “A Stranger in the Rain” is a story of sin and retribution in the classic way. Twisty, sinister and laced with devilish hallucinations.

“Headlights” – ★★★★

A rather sweet take on the vanishing hitchhiker myth. It isn’t incredibly scary, but is creative in its retelling and a pleasant read otherwise. It is more heart-warming than anything.

“Dinner With Death” – ★★★

This was the darkest story atmospherically, but somehow didn’t stand out to me as strongly as the others.

“The Comeback” by Ellen C. Maze – ★★★★

The twist in this short is like a gut-punch. I loved everything about this story, which follows a has-been actor and his rivalry with an up-and-coming actor that he feels has stolen his role in the spotlight. The bitterness of losing fame and jealousy react to a terrible and violent end.

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Book Review – Dolly by Susan Hill

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Suspense / Horror
Publication Date: October 5th, 2012
Publisher: Profile Books

“All, all of it I remember. Then I relived, my heart pounding again as I stood at the window and through the fog-blanketed darkness heard the sound again. Deep under the earth, inside its cardboard coffin, shrouded with the layers of white paper, the china doll with the jagged, open crevasse in its skull was crying.”

The atmosphere in Dolly is so heavy and intense that it’s almost its own character, perfectly at home in its loneliness. Dolly recalls pieces of Burnett’s The Secret Garden, but twisted. It’s like the marshy underside of the Secret Garden, where you would expect fairytale things to be waiting in the bog.

After the death of his aunt, a man, Edward, recalls his childhood staying at Iyot Lock, her manor house decaying out in the middle of the moor. The house is straight out of a gothic novel and nobody much enjoys being there save for the aunt, and especially not Edward’s cousin, Leonora. He tries to get along with Leonora desperately, but sometimes she just turns into an evil stranger with no warning or transition, and Edward becomes afraid of her. The aunt buys Leonora a baby doll that she breaks, and afterward the doll becomes kind of… vocal, but only late in the night when it’s only Edward there to hear it.

I really appreciate the oddness of the characters. Edward and Leonora have a weird dynamic – they start off like you’d expect they’re going to end up being best of friends. They hate each other on a subtle level from square one, even for the moments they get along. I think that they had always enjoyed seeing each other miserable, and that’s probably why, even though Edward wasn’t insufferable as Leonora was, they are both doomed to be bound to each other through horrible occurrences that they can’t explain to anybody else. Their relationship is surprisingly bleak for being children through most of the story. Continue reading “Book Review – Dolly by Susan Hill”

Book Review – The Haunting of Saxton Mansion (Book 0) by Roger Hayden

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Mystery / Suspense
Series: The Haunting of Saxton Mansion
Publication Date: November 2nd, 2017
Publisher: Independent

The Haunting of Saxton Mansion has a pretty atmosphere and engaging suspense, but holy goodness, it needs a thorough, surgically precise typo scrub. There are really frequent typos that detract from what otherwise is a promising gothic suspense novel. They’re more malapropisms than misspellings, things that Spell Check alone wouldn’t catch, so I can see how they slipped through. But still, there’s such a number I don’t see how some weren’t noticed. In one instance, it causes an accidental paranormal moment where two men seem to be having a psychic conversation with each other.

If the editing was glossed up, I feel like it would’ve been quite beautiful. It’s still not a poor story underneath its surface flaws. Saxton Mansion has an original premise and it reminds me rather nostalgically of Fear Street.
The plot revolves around a man and his wife who purchase a strange mansion in rural Florida that was a strong but somehow forgotten part of the man’s childhood. It’s slow burning rather than visceral, which works for it, and the twist ending is rewarding. I probably would read the second to see where it takes me, but I really wish they had cleaned up the grammar. It’d do a world of favours to its world of ghosts.